In 1870, the British representative in Travancore reported a peculiar problem that afflicted the dispensing of justice in that princely state. Sometimes, it so happened, witnesses came from low-caste groups, which made recording testimony somewhat complicated—they had no access to courtrooms where they might “defile" their savarna superiors. As a result, since “the witness cannot go to the court", wrote the Englishman, “the court must go to the witnesses". It could not, however, “go too near him", lest the high-caste judge lose his purity. Instead, the dispensers of justice stood at a distance, their questions shouted out by a goomastah to a peon placed midway from the witness. This peon, whose purity was presumably of lesser consequence, would then proceed to yell those questions to the avarna at the other end. Naturally, more often than not, it was not the words spoken by the hapless witness that finally made their way to the judge. But it didn’t matter—the avarna went back to his gloomy life, while the judge patted himself for another day spent in the service of “justice".
Strangely comical as it might seem, this was merely one facet of the dark, marginalized world into which Ayyan and Mala brought their son, Ayyankali, in 1863. They were Pulayas, a word derived from pula (pollution), living in Venganoor, near Thiruvananthapuram. The Pulayas were an agrestic slave caste, and, till slavery was abolished a decade before, could be bought and sold for bags of rupees. Ritual pollution barred them from public spaces, and even language was proscribed: A Pulaya could never use the word “I" but only adiyan (your slave). When a Pulaya died, the body might have to be buried in his own hovel, for there was no other land available for the purpose. Samuel Mateer, a missionary, recorded the nightmare that was life for most Pulayas. They resided, he observed, “in miserable huts" by the fields they didn’t own, their principal vocation “digging and manuring, transplanting the young rice, repairing the banks, and performing other labours in the rice-fields, sometime standing for hours in the water", which left them susceptible to disease. Wages were paid in kind, and these were minimal; any questions could lead to eviction and immediate destitution.
Ayyan and Mala, however, were unusual in having a sympathetic master—in a time without toilets, when even finding a spot for defecating would require the landowner’s permission, their overlord had granted them several acres of property. Here they raised Ayyankali, providing him a better life than was open to most of their caste-men. Their first-born appears to have been aware that this marginal privilege was not something to be squandered—confident, and with a mind of his own, he gathered around him other Pulaya boys, emerging as something of a group leader. In his youth, his life was confined to Venganoor: He laboured in the fields, married, and began a family. But then, at 30, something changed within this illiterate man, who would go on to earn such titles as Mahatma and Gurudevan. For, in 1893, he decided to issue the first of his many challenges to the rotten world around him, setting out to claim for his people that crucial thing they had lacked for centuries: equality.
The event is part of popular lore. Public roads, at the time, were barred to avarnas. Indeed, such was the exactness with which this practice was upheld, that a fabulously wealthy man, the sole owner of a motor car outside the royal court, often had to disembark on certain roads and take a side route on foot. His high-caste driver, meanwhile, would bring around the vehicle to wherever the low-caste owner could finally alight. Ayyankali, of course, had no car but what he did was unthinkable. He purchased a bullock cart, already an act of defiance; and then, with great fanfare, a turban wound around his head, he proceeded to make open use of a road where people of his caste were strictly prohibited. A band of Nairs with lordly pretensions came out for a fight, but Ayyankali gave as good as he got—dagger in hand, he with his friends put the savarnas to flight.
The next five decades were busy. Education was his principal priority—a school he started in 1904 was burnt down, but he achieved small victories over time. It was not easy, though: Even Ramakrishna Pillai, an enlightened journalist, dismissed Ayyankali’s demands on the grounds that those “cultivating land" could not seek parity with those who had been “cultivating intelligence" for generations—it was like yoking together a horse and a buffalo. But Ayyankali persevered, till a few years later, following another violent attempt to deny Pulayas access to schools, he called for Kerala’s first labour strike. Unnerved, the government agreed at last to his demands, throwing open large numbers of schools to Dalits across the board. In 1907, meanwhile, a formal body—the Sadhu Jana Paripalana Sangham—was founded to represent the interests of the community. And in 1912, Ayyankali was nominated to one of the state’s formal assemblies, giving a voice to the Pulayas at the highest levels of power.
What led to the erosion of Ayyankali’s influence, however, was precisely this willingness to work with the government, which on its part, fearing a mass exodus from Hinduism, periodically conceded demands even as it prevented other Dalit castes from making common cause with the Pulayas. By the 1930s, factionalism and a generational gap saw authority slip out of Ayyankali’s hands, and, early in the next decade, the attractions of communism rang the death knell of what was already a dismembered organization. By the time Ayyankali died in 1941, the world was an altogether different place, and not many—including his son-in-law—were prepared to follow him. But for all that, ordinary men and women continued to behold in him a hero. For, after all, were it not for this crusader on a bullock cart, taking head-on the mighty and powerful in 1893, generations might have passed before the Pulayas decided, at last, that it was time for them to rise up, standing together to fight.
Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne: Chronicles Of The House Of Travancore.
He tweets at @UnamPillai